October 6th, 2004

bear by san

Science fiction isn't about the future.

I'm reposting something I wrote in August of 2002 because I wanted it over here, rather than over on Blogger...

An actual blog on writing theory and thoughts, and the nature of Speculative Fiction! My god, what's gotten into me now?

Ruth and I were chatting in email about rigorousness in extrapolation, and reader response to SFF, and it got me thinking--there's a certain category of science fiction reader, which I fear is Not My Target Audience (and the more I think about it, the more I realize that SFF is really five or six different readerships crammed into one catchall category--more on that later, or perhaps in another blog entry)--who are definitely more interested in the science than the fiction. This is fine. But it leads me to the next observation:

There's also a category of reader that reads to have their preconceptions confirmed. That seems interested in being told about futures very much as they expect futures to be, and they get cranky if the writer's vision differs from their own. I think these readers, perhaps, are missing the point.

Not only are futurists almost always wrong (ignoring, for a moment, the "Heinlein was right!" syndrome. Heinlein was right an awful lot, but he was wrong even more often. It's just that he nailed a few things so precisely we maybe forget the rest. Remember what 2000 was supposed to look like, circa 1950? There's not that much around that your average transplant from 1950 wouldn't at least recognize in functionality. My kitchen still doesn't have dinner waiting for me when I get home.) but, more importantly:

Science fiction isn't for the future. Science fiction is for now.

Indeed. John Brunner's society in "Stand on Zanzibar" is pretty close, in some ways (the advertising blitz, the upswing in random violence), but that was wrong on so many other levels.

But it wasn't written for 2002. Or 2012, for that matter. It was written for the end of the 1960's and the beginning of the 1970's. The fact that it still seems relevant now is a testament to Brunner's ability as a writer and his eye for how a society develops and what a long-term social problem looks like.

Our futures as SF writers or our alternate worlds as fantasy writers are parables, fairy tales. By divorcing them from current reality, we can talk about things in a greater depth and from a different angle, using the artistic illusion that we are talking about Someone Else. We can fool people into taking a harder look at their assumptions by making them think their assumptions aren't being challenged, whether it's "Enemy Mine" talking about race and the propaganda of war, or "I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream" talking about the dehumanizing effects of technology.

We're just writing fairy tales. That's all. It's safe. Really. They won't change your life. Remember the fuss over The Last Temptation of Christ? Science fiction can get in under the radar, sometimes. The outcry if Heinlein's incredibly influential Stranger in a Strange Land hadn't presented itself as a science fictional premise? What a novel idea, that God wants us to laugh at ourselves and try to understand each other.

I wonder how much that has to do with the general dismissal of SF as trash? In other words (well, okay, a lot of it is trash. But have you looked at the general run of "serious fiction" lately? Most of that is trash too.) is it comfortable to dismiss SF because some of it carries radical ideas?

Hmm. And how much SFF actually carries those radical ideas any more? As it becomes more mainstream, is it becoming less dangerous? Or can we only identify those scary, dangerous, mind-opening books many years later? I don't know the answer to that question -- I offer it to provoke thought.

Back to rigorousness of extrapolation: some readers also seem to forget that, as my college geology professor, the inimitable Dr. Anthony Philpotts, put it, "There is an inertia to ideas."

'Zactly. I'm going to have to sit down at an IBM Selectric this afternoon and do a little typing. :-) (Tai Ping, that's a city in the Orient, right?)

And there's an inertia to stuff, too. Until 1999, my mother's kitchen phone was an avocado-green wall-mounted rotary dial monstrosity with an integral cord and a handset that could have been used in hand-to-hand combat. It was so old that the phone company actually gave it to us -- one day, they just stopped billing for the rental. (Remember when you used to rent your phone from the phone company?)

But it worked, and had worked for thirty years. Why replace it with one that would need to be replaced again in three or five years?

But then, I drive a fourteen-year-old Chevy with a crumpled bumper. Hey, it runs.

And then there's what I've taken to calling "maximized technology." (That may be a neologism -- I don't know. If it is, dibs! If not, credit wherever it's due.) In other words, stuff that's already just about perfect. While the form may change, this stuff stays around for a really, really long time.

Ruth mentioned that books and cars would be with us a long time, and I agree wholeheartedly.

Books are a maximized technology. They're cheap, durable, portable, reproducible, reasonably easy to make, and once you have the skill to utilize them, you don't need any equipment to use them. Also, they offer aesthetic satisfaction.

Just like the knife, the basic design of which hasn't changed since the paleolithic. Oh, we've added refinements -- but the idea of a cutting surface and a place to hold it hasn't altered a bit.

Cars of the future -- personal transportation. They'll have more advanced safety features, they'll probably go faster and farther with less attention from the operator... but basically, an automobile is the same technology as a chariot, just with a better propulsion system.

The real technological advances are just about always totally unpredictable, as are the real societal changes. Women working outside the home. Education for children extending far into their functional adulthood (I know a heck of a lot of 30 year olds who are still in school!) Antibiotics. Steam power. The transistor. Personal computers. The uses to which they will be put -- faster transportation and more territory to be claimed, more lethal killing devices, more 'efficient' exploitation of labor and natural resources, improved medical science, speedier communication and wider dispersal of ideas, a wider range of intoxicants and entertainment -- those, we can predict with a fine degree of accuracy.

Why can we predict these things?

Because they're the same damn changes we've been making since we first realized that if we built our huts in a circle and poked barley in the ground nearby, we could make beer more easily.
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